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Parshat Vayechi

"Dan will judge his people"


The principle blessing Dan receives from Yaakov is: "Dan will judge his people like one of the tribes of Israel." Like all the blessings the brothers received, this blessing and its continuation need clarification.


Rashi, Radak, and Rabbeinu Bechaye, among others, explain that Yaakov's blessing is a prophecy concerning Shimshon the judge (shofet).

"Dan will judge his people: This is Shimshon who was from the tribe of Dan, and he judged Israel..." (Rabbeinu Bechaye 49, 16)

According to this explanation Yaakov, in his blessing to Dan, prophesies that one of his descendants will be a savior for the People of Israel. Rashbam disagrees with this approach and criticizes the many commentaries who follow it. He categorically rejects the notion that Yaakov's blessing to Dan deals with one individual descendant, and that Yaakov would suffice with blessing Dan in this way:

"Those who explained that it [the blessing] concerned Shimshon do not know the depths of the plain reading of scripture at all. As if Yaakov came to prophesize about one person who fell in the hands of the Philistines and they put out his eyes and he died with Philistines in a horrible way?! Heaven forbid.
Rather, he prophesized about the tribe of Dan that was the rearguard for all the camps." (Rashbam, 49, 17)

The differences between these two approaches go beyond a general hermeneutic dispute as to how to read biblical text; there is an additional specific dispute that relates to the blessings Yaakov gives to his sons. Rashbam maintains that these blessings are not to be understood in the context of one lone historical event; rather, each blessing provides a fundamental insight concerning each tribe, each branch of the People of Israel. Furthermore, Rashbam's explanation also contains an obvious criticism of all those who view Shimshon as a hero, or as a symbol of success.

Chazal offer yet another option, one that can unite these two approaches. Rather than stating that Yaakov's blessing is specifically aimed at the lone figure of Shimshon, Chazal use the blessing to describe Shimshon's basic character traits. Instead of limiting the significance of the blessing by determining that each word relates exclusively to Shimshon, they add depth and meaning to the words of the verse by using Shimshon to illustrate the essence of each aspect of the blessing, the tribe of Dan in general, and its unique contribution to the People of Israel.

Chazal make it sound as though the words "yadin amo," "He will judge his people" relate to the thug in Shimshon, his ability to exact revenge on Israel's enemies. In this case "yadin" has a similar meaning to the verse "He will judge (yadin) among the nations, filling with corpses; crushing heads on many lands." (Tehillim 110, 6)

The gemara breaks down the various components of Shimshon's character, offering a number of explanations and insights. Rabbi Yochanan, for example, expounds: "Shimshon was lame in both his legs as it says (Bereishit 49), 'a horned snake on the path.'" (T.B. Sotah 10a) This explanation is curious; the many stories of biblical Shimshon do not make sense in light of such a severe disability. Clearly the statement is not meant to be taken literally, but rather to make us view Shimshon, his actions, and his tactics through the lens of this limitation. Shimshon was a man who did great things, especially when considering the limitations he faced. Today we would say he fought with two hands tied behind his back; in the time of Chazal the metaphor is that he was lame, without two legs to stand on.

Another unique characteristic of Shimshon was that he hailed from the Tribe of Dan, a tribe without any special lineage, since Dan was a son of a maidservant. This detail is not immaterial, rather, this made his behavior as a judge different. Shimshon does not accept a position of responsibility, he is not weighed down by the burden of leadership.  He doesn't seem all that mature. Instead, his behavior is generally the result of bursts of rage; his actions are the desperate acts of a man fed up with the prejudice and exclusion, hungry for justice. In one such case his wife is given to another man and it is his vengeance that reveals his physical strength, along with the power he has to instill fear in those around him.

The gemara also describes him physically, claiming that his broad shoulders were six amot wide, translating his crudeness and recklessness into physical attributes of unrealistic proportions. Shimshon is portrayed like a bull in the china shop; he does not belong in the world of men. These descriptions paint the picture of a man with fits of rage and a lack of compassion, who believes that vengeance is his, and he is so sure in his ways that he is willing to go the distance. These traits are not only the traits of the mighty Shimshon, they are also the traits of the Tribe of Dan.

The original role of the Tribe of Dan was the rearguard. Their role is to protect the people from enemies that target the stragglers, the weakest at the back of the camp. Such reprehensible foes do not deserve any compassion; instead, it is critical that they are met by warriors with a steely determination, who are willing to give their lives for their cause. "Let my soul die with the Philistines."

While the description of Dan is daunting, the novelty of Yaakov's blessing is the words "like one of the tribes of Israel." While the unique characteristics of Dan may not have a place in an established leadership, this is still an archetype that has its place in Israel, a worthy part of the congregation. (Radak, ibid.)

What is true on a national level is also true on an individual level.

There are two aspects to judgement- "he will judge his people-" two ways to lead. There is the classic level-headed, knowledgeable, insightful judge. And there is impulsive judgment, bursting with rage and pain, unique to Shimshon.

And in each of us there is a place for both. On most days the former is appropriate. But the latter also has its place. When we find it necessary to fight against that which threatens our identity and dignity, our principles and the ideals that define us and our borders- this is the place for the judgment of Dan.

Sat, June 19 2021 9 Tammuz 5781